If those who are counseling inaction and delay succeed, billions of humans will suffer unimaginable misery and chaos, while most other species will simply go extinct.
Maybe the best one line description of our current situation that I have read is:
That’s the final sentence in Elizabeth Kolbert’s fine global warming book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and as I’ll show in this post, it is entirely accurate.
How can the traditional media cover a story that is almost “impossible to imagine”? I don’t think they can. I’ll be using a bunch of quotes mostly from the NYT’s Revkin, not because he is a bad reporter — to the contrary, he is one of the best climate reporters — but because now that he has a blog, he writes far more than any other journalist on this subject and shares his thinking. A new Revkin post, “The Never-Ending Story,” underscores the media’s central problem with this story:
I stayed up late examining the latest maneuver in the never-ending tussle between opponents of limits on greenhouse gases who are using holes in climate science as ammunition and those trying to raise public concern about a human influence on climate that an enormous body of research indicates, in the worst case, could greatly disrupt human affairs and ecosystems.
This sentence is not factually accurate (the boldface is mine). It would be much closer to accurate if the word “worst case” were replaced by “best case” or, as we’ll see, “best case if the opponents of limits on GHGs fail and fail quickly.” The worst case is beyond imagination. The word “holes” is misleading. And this isn’t a “tussle” — it is much closer to being a “struggle for the future of life as we know it.” And all of us — including Andy — better pray that it ain’t “never-ending. ” Before elaborating, let me quote some more :
One of the unavoidable realities attending global warming — a reality that makes it the perfect problem — is that there is plenty of remaining uncertainty, even as the basics have grown ever firmer (my litany: more CO2 = warmer world = less ice = rising seas and lots of climate shifts).
Some skeptics have long tried to use the uncertainty as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. Campaigners for carbon dioxide curbs seem reluctant to acknowledge the gaps for fear that society will tune out. So the story migrates back to the edges: catastrophe, hoax. No doubt.
This last paragraph sums up the problem for the media. As an aside, I don’t know what “gaps” or “holes” Revkin is talking about, but as I will try to make clear, they don’t really exist in the sense that any typical reader would expect from the context.
The “story migrates back to the edges,” not because that is inherent to the story, but because that is inherent to all modern media coverage of every big issue. Let me quote Newsweek editor Jon Meacham from last month:
“I absolutely believe that the media is not ideologically driven, but conflict driven. If we have a bias it’s not that people are socially liberal, fiscally conservative or vice versa. It is that we are engaged in the storytelling business. And if you tell the same story again and again and again – it’s kind of boring.”
The real story doesn’t have much conflict: It is the growing scientific (and technological) understanding that if we don’t sharply restrict greenhouse gas emissions soon, we face catastrophe — that is the right word, the one Kolbert sticks in her title.
The conflict is actually a political one between those who believe in government-led solutions and those who don’t. This is a central point. As Revkin himself notes about the Heartland denier/disinformer conference, “The one thing all the attendees seem to share is a deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” As I explain at length in my book, a central reason that conservatives and libertarians reject the scientific understanding of human-caused climate change is that they simply cannot stand the solution. So they attack both the solution and the science.
It simply is not accurate to say the real edges of this debate are “catastrophe” or “hoax”. Revkin and every reasonable person knows that this is no “hoax,” no conspiracy of the thousands of top scientists in the world to deceive the public — that is laughable, pure disinformation from the conservatives who hate regulations. It is comparable in credibility to the claim that we never landed on the moon.
Revkin also knows, or he should know, that “catastrophe” is not the edge of the debate. Let me explain why.
The middle of the debate is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. That is the mainstream scientific view. That is the “consensus” among our top scientists (even though that is a terrible word, as I’ve noted). The language is signed off on by 180 governments. You certainly can’t call that the “edge.”
This is especially true IF we actually listen to the deniers/disinformers and don’t act to reduce emissions soon. This is the central point that the media either fails to understand or refuses to communicate.
Let me make two related arguments. First, Revkins writes: “a human influence on climate that an enormous body of research indicates, in the worst case, could greatly disrupt human affairs and ecosystems.” That research, summarized by the IPCC, says, for instance:
Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts. There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5°C (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.
Now wouldn’t losing 40% to 70% of all species — a 3.5°C rise is a certainty if we lose the “tussle” to opponents of limits on GHGs — be a “catastrophe” by any definition of the word (without even bringing in the hundreds of millions of people whose lives will be ruined by sea level rise, drought and water shortages)?
Let me go further. As I (and others, including the IPCC itself) have repeatedly explained, the “holes” or “gaps” in the IPCC work are almost exclusively omissions of hard-to-model things like carbon-cycle amplifying feedbacks and dynamic ice sheet destruction that would tend to make future impacts much worse than the IPCC models. And the actual observational record clearly shows that the climate is changing faster than the IPCC models project.
An even more important point, one that the media almost completely ignores, is that the other major source of “uncertainty” in the IPCC reports is that nobody knows for sure how much greenhouse gases humans will emit this century. So the IPCC models a wide range of emissions, including some very low emissions/concentrations scenarios with relatively modest, but still severe, impacts. But the longer we listen to the do-nothing crowd, the more certain it is that we will end up with very high emissions and concentrations whose brutal impacts are all too certain.
We are currently emitting 8 billion tons of carbon a year (8 GtC/yr) and rising more than 3% per year — faster than the most pessimistic IPCC model. There is a little-reported bomb-shell buried in the footnote of the first IPCC report released last year:
Climate-carbon cycle coupling is expected to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the climate system warms, but the magnitude of this feedback is uncertain. This increases the uncertainty in the trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions required to achieve a particular stabilisation level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Based on current understanding of climate carbon cycle feedback, model studies suggest that to stabilise at 450 ppm carbon dioxide, could require that cumulative emissions over the 21st century be reduced from an average of approximately 670 [630 to 710] GtC to approximately 490 [375 to 600] GtC. Similarly, to stabilise at 1000 ppm this feedback could require that cumulative emissions be reduced from a model average of approximately 1415 [1340 to 1490] GtC to approximately 1100 [980 to 1250] GtC.
The appropriate response to the final sentence, if you oppose greenhouse gas regulations — or if you worry that those who do will maintain enough credibility/influence in the media and in Washington DC that they (continue to) succeed in stalling action — or if you actually are a member of the media who treat those opponents as if they had a scientifically or morally defensible position — is “Oh my dear God!“
On our current emissions pace, we will be at 11 GtC/yr around 2020 and still rising! That means, if the “other side” wins — or even if they just partially win [by limiting government controls to ones that lead to average emissions of 11 GtC/yr for the century] — then the planet’s carbon dioxide concentrations, feedbacks including, are headed to 1000 ppm!
Let me repeat, if the other side (as the media labels them) wins, we face 1000 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2 — a quadrupling from preindustrial levels — if not higher. That is NOT the worst-case, that isn’t even business as usual if the disinformers win — stabilizing at 1000 ppm still requires a lot of government-led effort that conservatives almost universally disdain.
Scientists rarely even bother modeling the impacts of 1000 ppm because “catastrophe” doesn’t begin to describe the impacts. We are talking average global temperatures some 10° to 14° C higher — yes 18° to 25° F higher (and perhaps 50% higher than that on northern land masses like the continental U.S.) — in any case, far higher than the last time the planet had no ice whatsoever and sea levels were more than 250 feet higher. The ocean would be rendered virtually lifeless. Deserts would engulf vast tracts of the planet. This is not “global warming” or “climate change,” it is Hell and High Water. Few scientists have, perhaps until very recently, seriously considered that humanity would be so mindlessly self-destructive that 1000 ppm would be a possible outcome.
To repeat the bottom line: If those who council inaction and delay win, then there is no uncertainty about our future, no gaps, no holes, nothing but millennia of misery for billions and billions of humans and outright extinction for most other species.
I get that the media treats so-called alarmists with skepticism. I sort of understand why Revkin writes this weekend about the conference of skeptics “trying hard to prove that they had unraveled the established science showing that humans are warming the world in potentially disruptive ways,” as opposed to more accurate statements like “in potentially catastrophic ways” or “in ways that will be catastrophic if we actually listen to the skeptics.”
I understand that much of the traditional media either hasn’t taken the trouble to figure out what’s going to happen to humanity if the anti-government crowd win — or, for those in the media who know, they feel they just can’t keep beating the public over the head with the painful truth [I guess that's what blogs are for]. But every time they do a story with a different, blander spin, they undermine the urgent need for action. Every time they say there is a middle ground, they push us closer to the certain catastrophe of inaction. I think that qualifies as tragic irony.
So yes, it appears to me that today’s media simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction. When historians write about this time — very, very bitterly, no doubt, if we have forced them to suffer through Hell and High Water — the media will get assigned plenty of blame for sins of omission, though obviously not as much blame as those who were actively working to spread disinformation and block action.
I will end with a quote about the journalism of my father’s time — he was an investigative journalist and then a newspaper editor for four decades — from Edward R. Murrow, See It Now, March 9, 1954: